Lauren Mahony organizes special exhibitions for Gagosian. She joined Gagosian in 2012 after seven years in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Michael Tcheyan is president of Investment Strategy Advisors Inc. and studied art with Mercedes Matter and Philip Guston at the New York Studio School in the early ’70s. He served on the board of the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts and is past president of the Mayor’s Partnership for the Arts in Summit, New Jersey. He is cochair of the New York Studio School’s alumni association.
Mercedes Matter’s devotion to art and artists, manifest in her founding of the New York Studio School, was instilled in her early on. Born Jeanne Carles in Philadelphia in 1913, the future artist, writer, and educator was the daughter of Mercedes de Cordoba, a former model for Edward Steichen and other members of the Photo-Secession, and Arthur B. Carles, an American painter who studied the art of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse in Paris in the 1910s. This early and persistent exposure to modern art led Matter herself to begin painting at the age of six. After living in Italy and France, she began to study art, first at Bennett College, to the north of New York City, and then, in the early 1930s, with the artist Hans Hofmann. This German-born painter is of course famous for teaching the concepts of abstract painting that would define the New York School: the “push-pull” approach to composition and the focus on the picture plane. He also insisted on sustained looking and time in the studio to develop ideas. Matter’s upbringing and education would define not only her own approach to art making but her career as an educator carrying these philosophies to new generations. As the art historian Ellen G. Landau has written, “The Studio School offered an atelier curriculum that perfectly reflected (perhaps even more than her own work) Mercedes Matter’s deep-seated belief in the transcendent powers of art making.”1
During the Depression, Matter worked for the Works Progress Administration alongside Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Lee Krasner. The project she and de Kooning collaborated on was directed by Fernand Léger, for whom she served as a translator. Two years later, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Léger introduced her to her future husband, the Swiss photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter (some of Herbert’s best-known photographs show a nude Mercedes on the beach at Provincetown). Following a brief period in Los Angeles, the Matters returned to New York after World War II to find that the nascent artistic community of the WPA years was now running at full force. In the early 1950s, Mercedes was among the first female members of the Club, an organization of downtown artists that held frequent discussion evenings; she was also a regular at the Cedar Tavern.2 For Mercedes, “The Club was marvelous. It brought together in one place, at one time, the greatest diversity of artists—as nothing had done before or has since. . . . The end of that marvelous time came when American art became big business.”3
Decrying the tendency toward “easier, ready-made results,” Matter made her philosophy clear: “Strip away everything but . . . basic, serious components: drawing, painting, sculpture, history of art.”
In 1953, while remaining an artist and writer, Matter began her career as an educator, teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art, New York University, and Pratt Institute. Ten years later she grew troubled by trends she noticed in institutional curricula that seemed increasingly at odds with the lessons of her youth. At Pratt, students completed a first-year foundation course and then painters majored in Art Education and sculptors in Industrial Design, taking drawing and painting classes just once a week, respectively. The rest of the curriculum was geared toward accreditation requirements, and there was no emphasis on studio time or on instruction from working artists, factors Matter believed crucial to an artist’s development. She accordingly began to hold an off-campus drawing class for students craving more such teaching. (The period coincided with the early years of ’60s student activism; in 1963, a number of Pratt students barricaded themselves in the painting studio, demanding to design their own curriculum.) Matter’s drawing classes served as a laboratory in which she could refine her ideas about art education. Putting these concerns on paper, in September 1963 she published her article “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?,” writing, “Instruction no longer punctuates the student’s work, it replaces it.” Decrying the tendency toward “easier, ready-made results,” she made her philosophy clear: “Strip away everything but . . . basic, serious components: drawing, painting, sculpture, history of art.”4
Many young art students read Matter’s article as a call to arms. Several responded by entreating her to help them start an art school, and in September 1964, the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture was born.5 Initially housed in a 5,000-square-foot loft on lower Broadway, the school soon moved to the original home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, on West 8th Street. Matter was a natural leader, not only in personality and passion but because so many people in the art world loved and supported her. The school was dedicated to the principle that an art student’s education should mirror the life of an actual artist, the life the student would lead upon graduation. Its program called for long uninterrupted periods in the studio, plus critiques from artists and mentors farther along in their professional careers. The founding manifesto was signed by de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, and others; early faculty included Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Milton Resnick, and Meyer Schapiro.6
A school that ignored two essential reasons for going to college in this period—a degree that would lead to a job and a deferment from the military draft (this during the Vietnam War)—appealed only to the most serious and committed. And while the concept of drawing from life may now seem conservative, the school’s approaches to traditional subject matter were true to Hofmann’s philosophies, and the principle of collaboration between students and instructors was radical. The diversity of the school’s graduates also shows its success in training artists not to make traditional art but to develop original ideas and approaches. For David Reed, for example, a student at the school in 1966–67, his time there provided an important link to earlier generations of the New York School. He recalls,
[Matter’s] philosophy of art education and being an artist inspired me. Her friends and colleagues were involved with the School and were my introduction to New York painting culture. I always volunteered to deliver her manifestos and petitions to be signed—in this way I was able to briefly meet Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, and have a longer conversation with Mark Rothko in his uptown studio on 69th Street. Mercedes took a group of us to Elaine de Kooning’s studio and brought Philip Guston and Milton Resnick in to teach. The composer Morton Feldman was the dean of the school and convinced Willem de Kooning to come back with him after lunch one day and they spoke with students together in the library. These experiences formed me as an artist.7
The school’s approach continues to affect graduates in their mature work. Christopher Wool, who shared a studio there with Joyce Pensato in the 1970s, recalls, “I’m still kind of amazed that Joyce and I . . . have both continued to work in similar veins related to the Studio School, and in retrospect we both feel greatly indebted to Mercedes for her support and influence.” Wool has connected the “Studio School ideal” to his own discovery that “the process of finding the geometry was part of the process of painting.”8 Today, Matter’s vision for the Studio School—which continues to evolve under the direction of the current dean, Graham Nickson—remains a major turning point in arts education in the United States.
1Ellen G. Landau, “To Be an Artist Is to Embrace the World in One Kiss,” in Landau, Sandra Kraskin, Phyllis Braff, et al., Mercedes Matter, exh. cat. (New York: MB Art Publishing Co., 2009), p. 14.
2Landau, “To Be an Artist,” 47. Elaine de Kooning was another early member. See Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swann, de Kooning: An American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 289.
3Matter, quoted in Landau, “To Be an Artist,” p. 49.
4Matter, “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?,” Artnews 62, no. 9 (September 1963), pp. 40, 41.
5Among these students were Chuck O’Connor and Marc Zimetbaum. The authors are grateful to O’Connor for sharing his recollections of the School’s founding.
6The manifesto can be found in the archives of the Alumni Association of the New York Studio School. See 2019 Alumni Invitational, exh. cat. (New York: New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, 2019), p. 65.
7David Reed, e-mail conversation with the authors, June 3, 2020.
8Christopher Wool, in “Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool in Conversation Part 2,” in Siegel and Wool, eds., Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975, exh. cat. (New York: Gagosian, 2017), pp. 144, 145, and e-mail conversation with the authors, July 11, 2020.